Soaked and Sunburnt
I have to admit straight up I’m not that much of a tennis fan. Over the years I’ve watched the odd Wimbledon match but it’s been no more than a passing interest and has never been a sport that I’d normally make much of a special effort for. Although back in the very distant past I do remember watching the likes of McEnroe, Connors, Nastase and Borg when tennis players had a personality but that seemed to be part of the school summer holiday ritual where you played tennis for a couple of weeks then golf for 4 days before you returned to your first love of football and clubs and rackets were placed at the back of the cupboard until the next year.
So I approached a trip to Wimbledon with an open mind but there was always a lingering doubt that this might be akin to watching paint dry or even worse, watching cricket. The reason for the trip was a 40th birthday present to my wonderful wife who had always wanted to go to Wimbledon and as I got to stand on the hallowed turf of the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon for mine it was only right she got to go to Wimbledon for hers.
On the face of it this seemed quite a simple proposition until I started to investigate how you got tickets. It turned out I’d already missed the December ballot. Options for tickets were fairly limited once you dismissed the prices on the legalised touting sites. A small number of tickets are put on sale 24 & 48 hrs before each day’s play but you’d have more chance of winning the lottery than getting a pair of those or the final option is you go and join the famous Wimbledon queue to get a ground pass. There can’t be many major sporting events these days you can rock up on the day and get a ticket, all be it you have to put a bit of effort in.
Fortunately I had factored in this option when booking a hotel. The obvious trick is to get to the queue as early as possible that is if you’re not mad enough to camp out overnight. So I chose Kingston Upon Thames as our base which was only 15 mins away by train and crucially, the Kingston train gets into Wimbledon ahead of the first tube from London. Although if you follow the same plan as we did get a taxi from the station as it’s a bit of a trek on foot.
After getting up at 5am, I’ll repeat that, 5am, in the morning we arrived at the queue around 6.30 and welcomed with the sight of 1,000s of people already there. The stewards issued us ticket numbers 5,024 and 5,025 which sounds quite high but was actually ok as there are approx 1500 tickets available across the three show courts and around 5,000 for the ground on sale each day so it was looking good for us getting in but we weren’t taking anything for granted at this early stage. We got ourselves settled for the long wait in the queue just in time for the first downpour of the day. Fortunately I had packed a couple of plastic ponchos courtesy of Magners from The Waterboys Kelvingrove gig a few years back and they turned out to be an inspired last minute packing item. We would have been completely drenched and miserable otherwise. Even with them and a ground sheet to sit on it wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs as the downpours arrived at regular intervals but given it was the 100th anniversary of the Somme that morning our small gripes really were fairly insignificant.
The queue itself was brilliantly managed given the thousands of people already there and the thousands who arrived after us. Also it might be the kind of people tennis attracts and the early hour but the arsehole count was thankfully almost non existent. Apart from the people throwing umbrellas to each other to try and entertain themselves. Although I’m not sure I was up to quaffing champagne at that time in the morning like some were. So for about 3 hours or so it was enjoying the odd break in the rain showers, trying to stay as dry as possible and resisting the temptation to not constantly check the time.
The queue did eventually start to move and although the gates to the ground open at 10.30 we didn’t get in until after 12. I did enjoy the stewards stopping people who tried to queue jump and hold them back until their queue number came up. As we got into Wimbledon proper we just headed for the nearest court which was 17 as play was due to begin and we’d decide where to go after that. Our game was a men’s single match between Frenchman Lucas Pouille and American Donald Young and after a few mins they appeared on court but there were more dark clouds ominously heading our way and about 30 secs before the game was about to start play was suspended as the rain came down and on came the covers. This was to be the story of our day. I think we must have chosen one of the wettest days Wimbledon has seen for a long time. At this point we decided to invest in Wimbledon ponchos as we didn’t think ones emblazoned with Magners would be acceptable. We did look like muppets but at least we were dry muppets. So for the next 3 hours we became experts in the cover system as we watched them coming off then going back on again about 5 times before finally, we saw some tennis.
My early worries about being a bit bored were soon dispelled. When you are up that close to the action you realise how fast these balls are travelling and although the players we were watching were not in the same league as Murray or Federer they were in the top 100 players in the world and no slouches. The margins of error were so fine it was fascinating to watch. Pouille was seeded 32 and even to my untrained eye he clearly had the edge when it came to the range of shots and accuracy. Young was the bigger hitter but more erratic and was starting to lose the rag through the 2nd and 3rd sets. He changed his racket 4 times, moaned about the bounce, moaned that this was the worst court at Wimbledon and added a few expletives under his breath. He did rally slightly but class won through in the end and Pouille saw the game out and we had finally seen our first game of championship tennis. It’s also became a apparent that it was a dangerous job being a ball boy/girl. During the Pouille game one of the ball girls took a serve full in the face and had to retire hurt and in a later game one of the ball boys dislocated his finger. Tough shift.
I also had my first taste of Pimms, well we were at Wimbledon, I’ve tasted worse although at £8 a cup I was going to drink it no matter how it tasted. I had expected prices to be extortionate but they were actually fairly reasonable overall and you are also allowed to take a small amount of alcohol in with you which we didn’t bother doing but regretted later.
After our first game we then had a stroll round the rest of the grounds and courts. Wimbledon is a bit of mix and match when it comes to the layout of the courts. There are three show courts comprising centre court and courts 1 and 2 which are ticket only courts. Court 3 is a mix of reserved and unreserved seating and all other courts are first come first served. Although some of these have very little seating and you just watch from the walkway and you could watch several games at once depending on your position. As we walked around watching a few games here and there the dreaded rain came on again and on went the covers. We decided we’d head for court 12 to see men’s ninth seed Cilic’s game and sat there waiting on the rain to go off but the announcer said there would be no play for at least 40 mins so we went off to see Henman Hill/Murray Mound. Which both of us originally thought was outside the grounds but is actually behind court 1.
We sat and watched the Williams/McHale game taking place under the roof of centre court on the big screen before the weather cleared and the covers started to come back off. We headed back to the Cilic’s game but stopped off at court 3 where British player Tara Moore was playing 12th seed Svetlana Kusnetsova. We thought it would be all over fairly quickly and we would still get to see most of Cilic’s game afterwards. Moore lost the first set 6-1 and looked to be well out of her depth but came out and took the 2nd set with some great tennis that had the Russian on the ropes. There was plenty home support with folks irritatingly shouting out ‘come on Tara’ between every shot and a bit of terracing chant when swapping ends. It did seem to galvanise her but she just couldn’t quite sustain it and the Russian won through with the match winning point coming seconds before the rain came down again and play was suspended for the final time and tennis on Day 5 was over.
So a mere 14 hours since we had started queuing our Wimbledon experience finished much as it began in a downpour. Given the unpredictability of the weather we were probably lucky we saw two games to their conclusion and although it was a frustrating day weather wise it was still a great day out and one I’d highly recommend, especially if you are a big tennis fan. The ground pass was £25 which gives you access to all the courts bar the show ones and there is a re sale ticket office where you can queue to get tickets for the show courts at a reduced price after 3pm. If the weather had been kinder to us we could have seen 8 or 9 hours of tennis which would make the ticket great value for money. We’re already talking about coming back next year and now we know how the land lies we’ll be much better prepared and hopefully get better queuing weather if we don’t get tickets any other way. We did think about going back on the Saturday later on as they do a reduced ticket after 5pm but we saw on twitter people who had queued since 7 in the morning were only getting in about 5 and also the weather was still pretty changeable so we thought better of it.
So I may not be a tennis convert just yet but all in all for me it was a surprisingly good day out and one I’m more than happy to repeat and even better the other half really enjoyed it as well which was really the purpose of the whole trip.